Donna McGrath

Donna McGrath

Founder at The Lawyers' Coach

Heading into 2020, what are the biggest challenges facing law firms?

Following a 13-year career working both in private practice and in-house, Donna McGrath recently established a new business, The Lawyers’ Coach. The business provides coaching to leaders in law firms to help them manage the pressures of working in legal practice and sustain a healthy working environment and retain talented people. The Brief spoke to her about why, in 2020 more than ever, it is vital that firms focus on their people.

The Brief first spoke to McGrath in December 2018, shortly after she had begun working as a senior legal manager for the health food chain Holland & Barrett. At that point she had recently qualified as a life coach and, in addition to her in-house role, was beginning to work with individual lawyers and legal firms to help them develop their potential.

In September 2019 McGrath’s time at Holland & Barrett came to an end and she decided to focus on her coaching business. In late 2019 she took a part-time role in private practice while she set about establishing The Lawyers’ Coach as a formal business and, at the beginning of 2020, took the plunge and committed herself to her venture full-time.

The challenge ahead

McGrath believes that the biggest challenges facing law firms are “getting the right people in the door and keeping them”. There are, she explains, three main factors at play.

She says, “First, recent regulatory changes have opened up competition in the market, offering solicitors alternatives to traditional private practice. This means good solicitors can now walk away from law firms and practice in a different way that is more conducive to their own wellbeing.

“The second factor is the consistent high levels of stress that accompany the job, which have a significant effect on the resilience of people in the profession. And the third factor is that many partners and leaders don’t have the right support or training to enable them to support, grow and develop their people.”

Last year’s changes to the SRA’s Standards and Regulations make it easier for solicitors to practice outside traditional legal firms, taking on locum, consulting and contracting roles that are more flexible and provide better work-life balance. Drawing on her own experience McGrath says, “Confident good people are leaving traditional practice for different reasons such as independence, flexibility, health reasons, to be closer to family, high levels of stress and so on.”

High staff turnover means increased recruitment costs and can also affect firms commercially. “Firms need to be prepared for clients leaving too,” she says.

“In my experience people follow people. Furthermore, independent solicitors with lower overheads can be more competitive on pricing than the firms they leave, so there will also be cost pressures on the industry.”

It is scary that firms are not aware of the deep implications of stress for the well-being and productivity of their employees. They are simply not doing enough.

Team strategy

McGrath’s service begins by coaching firms and working with recruiters to identify the strategic objectives they hope to address by hiring new team members, and to identify the personal attributes that suitable candidates for any given position should possess.

McGrath uses the DiSC profiling system, in which she is a certified practitioner, to develop an understanding of team dynamics and the gaps that need to be filled by recruitment. The same profiling system helps identify which candidates are likely to provide the best fit.

Once the recruitment challenge has been addressed McGrath goes on to coach leaders in how to become coaches themselves – something she describes as a “sustainable skill”. She develops a bespoke plan for each leader to help them achieve greater engagement with their teams, resulting in improved, sustained performance and better team wellbeing.

She also helps future leaders, coaching would-be partners through the process of promotion. “The process can be daunting so it is important to help delve into what really motivates people to seek advancement and help them achieve clarity and focus, enabling them to identify their USP as a candidate.”

Stress “is rife”

“Stress is rife in the industry,” McGrath says. Her assertion is backed up by the findings of a Lexis Nexis Bellweather Report issued in 2019, Stress in the Legal Profession – Problematic or Inevitable?

She says she was “not shocked” by that report’s finding that two-thirds of solicitors surveyed admitted to experiencing high levels of stress. However, she says what did shock her was “a lack of awareness regarding the deeper implications of stress in the legal workplace and an absence of insight into how to improve the situation”.

“It’s not a secret that long-term stress or high levels of stress can lead to depression, anxiety and other illnesses, which leads to staff absence and sometimes long-term absence,” she continues.

While recognising that some firms are addressing the issue by putting in place occupational health services, mindfulness and wellbeing programmes, and employee benefits packages, she believes these measures treat the symptoms rather than the causes of stress.

McGrath says, “Mindfulness and well-being programmes are not enough to get to the heart of the issue because as soon as solicitors get back to their desks, they get straight back into their work and their natural mindsets. Occupational health services, meanwhile, are usually only sought out when something major has already happened and, to a large extent, the damage has already been done.

“The only real way to make a difference is to address the root causes of stress in the day-to-day working environment.  I work closely with partners and leaders to create changes in their daily work routines that translate into increased productivity as well as reduced stress levels.”

Managers still think team wellbeing is not their responsibility. They don’t understand the power they have, and often think ‘I’m a lawyer – nobody has ever trained me to do this!

Making the change

McGrath believes leaders in law firms face a number of obstacles that prevent them making the organisational changes that could address the issue of workplace stress. The first of these, she says, is lack of awareness of the impact they, as leaders, can have on the well-being of individuals in their teams, and the level of influence they wield that can lead to positive change.

The second obstacle is a lack of training in how to make the necessary change. “The leaders in law firms are trained lawyers, not managers, and often have had little or no additional training to help them become effective leaders,” McGrath says.

The final obstacle she identifies speaks to the levels of stress that partners and other leaders face themselves: “Often they don’t believe they have the necessary time available to invest in making a real change.”

Overcoming these obstacles is a key objective of the coaching McGrath provides. She says, “I help leaders and partners to raise their self-awareness, empowering them to make a difference. I also show them that tiny changes can have a major impact.

“Yes, leaders do need to commit time to this but the benefits of taking time to really reflect will far outweigh the cost.”

Promoting wellbeing

McGrath believes the commercial case for focusing on team dynamics, leadership skills and, ultimately, happy employees is compelling. She also believes that providing staff with a supportive environment in which they feel they can develop is key to their wellbeing.

“A big underlying part of what I do with firms is to do with people’s job satisfaction and their mental health within the workplace. It’s a key component of people’s wellbeing that can set those firms that get it right apart from others that just pay lip service and point staff toward occupational health if they are having a hard time.

“By taking steps to develop your people, provide great leadership and ensure people are working together effectively every day, you are actually making a great contribution to their well-being.”

As the profession enters a new decade McGrath is throwing down the gauntlet to all leaders in the legal sector.  She says, “The evidence of stress and potential mental health issues in your firms is real and is happening right in front of your eyes.

“The standard occupational health and training programmes are simply not enough. So, in 2020, what are you going to do to make a change that will benefit your staff, your customers and, ultimately, make your business sustainable for the long term?”

Connect with Donna on LinkedIn.